“No one will dance until reggae starts” – An Extended Interview with A Tribe Called Red

Since this week A Tribe Called Red released their terrific Moombah Hip Moombah Hop EP (go download it now, and then come back a read while listening…), I thought it might be a good time to post a long-form version of my interview for the Montreal Mirror piece I wrote back in August. Enjoy!

Erin: Who are A Tribe Called Red?

Bear Witness: I come from a family of artists – my father is a photographer, my mother an actor. My grandmother and great aunt are involved in Spiderwoman theatre – the longest continuously running women’s theatre company in North America.

I grew up between the theatre and the darkroom and at arts and theatre events, aroundd an exposed to lots of different things. Grew up in Toronto. Work as a video artist started with my father. We would go on walks where he would take pictures of me, and him taking pictures of me started to become a big part of his work—a whole body of his work called “The Bear Portraits”. Growing up with that and becoming more and more aware of why my father was taking pictures of me to represent aboriginal people in the urban landscape, that relationship grew more and more as I became more aware and started taking part in the photographs to now, about 2003, my father and I started working collaboratively. So that’s how the video art started. As for the music part of it, I’ve been a huge music fanatic my whole life. I’ve been a collector and around 95-96, my friends really pushed me to start Djing. So I have been djing now for abut 15 years or so. But really, a big change was hooking up with Ian and Dan and having us come together as a group, as aboriginal djs was really what changed the whole dj experience for me. And then incorporating that video work, which was always really close to my dj work as well.

Dan a.k.a. DJ Shub: My brother started me on this whole dj thing. He was a mobile dj. He used to play weddings, and he used to play at bars in Buffalo. And he’s the one who got me into this whole dj thing. He is the one that bought me the first set up of turntables and mixers, and this was back in 2000. I started out as a battle dj which is a lot different from djing in a club. You are always in a contest. In 2007, I won the Canadian championship and placed 6th in the world. I won the year after and then placed 5th in the world. The DMCs were something I always grew up watching. I started producing before I started djing—terrible, terrible hip hop beats [laughter]. The two just coincided together as time went on.

Ian a.k.a. DJ NDN: I started playing in punk bands when I was 13 or 14. I toured with the Ripcordz in my early twenties. After that, I worked in bars as a bouncer and in between bands I would play tracks. A new night started at the bar I was working at and from knowing that I could pick good music in between the bands, they let me start that new night. That’s how my music career began. That was 2006, I would say. I have been djing since 2006. I am married and have two daughters—one two and one three. Somehow we all mesh.

Erin: Tell me about the style of music.

Ian: When we started the Electric Pow Wow in Ottawa, we wanted to showcase that we were aboriginal djs in the city and that we were doing something and people should come and check it out. It was almost in the same vein as Koreans having a Korean party, that sort of thing. We just thought, why don’t we have a party like that? So we just threw it together, a few of us, and it was rammed with people that we had never met before. Growing up in the city, you typically know most of the other Indians, but this was a packed bar with people we didn’t know. It ended up being a lot of students who didn’t feel comfortable going out until they heard of our party.

We wanted to remix Pow Wow music to add to the flavour of the party and it just so happened that dubstep was the closest tempo and it was big music at the time. It was right to mix with traditional pow wow music. And then, with the dancehall reggae…Bear has been the best reggae dj in Ottawa for years now.

Bear: The first time we put together pow wow singing and a dubstep track was at a rehearsal that Ian and I were having for a gig and he said, “check this out”: he played a grass dance song and he asked if I would have anything that could go behind it. The first track I pulled up was a Jahdan Blakamoore instrumental for “The General”. It’s a really open, dubby, dubstep track and it just clicked in right away—it was at the right tempo, and it just worked really smoothly. But soon after that was when we added Dan to the group. We played that for Dan and showed him some of the ideas we were working with. At the time, Dan was living in Fort Erie, so he drove home, and the next morning he sent us this track, which is “Electric Pow Wow Drum”. He took this idea that we were working on and just ran so hard with it. We really saw something coming together.

Erin: Tell me about the love of dancehall.

Bear: I grew up in Toronto with dancehall all around me. I was a big fan and a big jungle fan too, back in the day. I’ve also found that a lot of aboriginal people love dancehall. I’ve always found it a funny thing, being the Indian dancehall dj, but as I’ve played for more and more native audiences, people bug out for it.

Ian: No one will dance until reggae starts.

Bear: There is something in it. It’s got that heartbeat rhythm to it. And moombahton takes off from that same place. Moombahton is something that we have all got really excited over. It is something that is new and happening right now – it’s got lots of producers really excited.

Ian: With moombahton, there are no real rules yet, so you just make what you want. And it gets out there pretty quick.

Bear: As producers, that’s what you are looking for – something that you can help shape, that you’re there at the right moment. But beyond that, anything with a damn fine bassline and a nice danceable chug to it, we’ll play.

Shub: Moombahton has pretty much taken over my production life for the past year or so. [laughter] Ever since Ian showed it to me for the first time.

Erin: Can you tell me about connecting traditional with the modern? Obviously, there’s been a number of collaborations between western music and southern styles—I think of the controversy surrounding Diplo and the discussions about appropriation and exploitation. Can you explain your approach in working through these issues?

Bear: Right away, it is different for us as aboriginal people, as people from a minority group working with other aboriginals or other people from a minority groups or people of colour. There’s automatically a different kind of collaboration that is going to happen then when you are working with someone from the settler nation.

So what’s got us all really excited now is the idea of global indigenous electronic music. Cause it’s happening all over right now. And I think all of the really, really exciting things that are happening in electronic music are coming from indigenous people from all over the world. We are all really excited to do more collaborations with people. The more that we get in touch with people from all over the place, we’re finding that people are thinking in the same ways and moving in the same directions as we are. We’ve made friends with these guys out west, World Hood – online friends and we are going to see them at Aborginal Music Week this fall.

These guys are doing the same thing—fusing their traditional knowledge with their urban experience. Connecting with people like that for us is a huge thing.

Erin: How should people go about collaboration?

Bear: Credit your samples! It was a really important thing for us as soon as we started working with this pow wow music to credit the groups that we were sampling. Huge thanks goes out to Guillaume Decouflet. He really worked hard to make sure that we had a deal with the record label and that Northern Cree, the group we remixed for “Red Skin Girl”, that that was all done correctly – we weren’t just jacking this music without giving credit or respect to the people who originally created it

Erin: What do Northern Cree think of it?

Shub: Northern Cree loved it. There was a pow wow here in Ottawa – Northern Cree was the host drum of the pow wow. And we were really excited that they were going to come to our event. We held an electric pow wow the same night. We had the pleasure of having Northern Cree there. We were all nervous because it was the first time I’d ever met them. The way we do the song live is a live remix, and we were on our toes as to the way they would react when they heard their track all cut up and remixed the way we do it. We were totally surprised with the reaction we got from them. Their jaws dropped. They were floored. We actually played it twice—they came up to us and asked us to play it again. It was a reaction we were hoping for.

Erin: Can you tell me the relationship between traditional pow wow and your electronic version?

Ian: It’s centred around the music and a gathering of people – a celebration of our culture. It’s all about dancing at the same time and having a good time and seeing friends that you haven’t seen in forever and seeing friends that you saw yesterday, but you can still have fun with them. It’s about fun—it’s about gathering.

Erin: You have talked in other interviews about the identity of the urban aboriginal – can you explain this further?

Ian: It’s someone who is aboriginal, and identifies as aboriginal, but has never lived on a reservation. Which makes it hard to find roots and any form of culture. I grew up in Ottawa, but I would go back to my reserve and stay with my grandmother for weeks on end during the summer, and I was always an outsider on the reserve at the same time. I would hang out with my cousins, but I wasn’t from there. I was always accepted, but I was different. But at the same time, growing up and all through highschool I was called chief, or “No Tax” was my nickname through highschool.

That’s the other side. You are made fun of because you are an aboriginal, but you don’t really have a strong sense of identity. And right now we are trying to give ourselves an identity. That’s what our party is about anyways.

Bear: My family has been urban for generations now. My grandfather, my father and I were all born in Buffalo, New York. On my mom’s side it’s four or five generations that go back in New York city. They’re an old New York City and Brooklyn family. So I have spent time, like Ian did, on my reservation; I still have some family there. But you are always treated as a city Indian when you are down there. I guess it’s the same as for any community when you go back to where you’re from and you’ve grown up having different experiences. For me, my community growing up was the urban aboriginal arts community, and that was my family. That’s how I had my connection to my culture was through the arts and through the theatre community in the 80s in Toronto, which was a very exciting time. I never felt that I lacked having a community in that sense, but there was always that thing at school where there was one other native kid and we always hated each other [laughs]. That was the guy I got in fights with in the early 90s. But Toronto was very different than it is now . . . communities have grown so fast.

But as we are going along, we are creating this aboriginal urban identity in everything that we are doing.

Ian: It’s not like there hasn’t been an urban identity before, it’s that we are doing it in a more positive way than say gangsta rap. As far as aboriginal music goes, you can either be a blues singer, traditional singer,

Bear: Or heavy metal . . .

Ian: I’d love to see more heavy metal . . . But you are either a gangsta rapper, blues singer, traditional singer, or country singer. We don’t really fit yet being aboriginal club producers. Or electronic producers. It hasn’t necessarily been done yet.

Erin: Tomson Highway once wrote that the image of the “urban Indian” is pretty negative.

Ian: The music that we’re making is more positive than most gangsta rap that’s out there—and I’m not saying that we’re not into the native gangsta rap scene, it’s just that it is a little over abundant. It’s part of why we stand out.

And can you imagine if these kids in these remote communities who are killing themselves at higher rates than ever – if we gave them a computer with something like Garage Band to make some music – how bored they are – how amazing some of that music would be? It’s a little frustrating.

Erin: I have heard that you were pretty inspired by the work of Heaps Decent in Australian aboriginal communities. Are you are work on something like that?

Ian: Because of all that is going on right now, it has been put on the backburner, but only just slightly . . . We need sponsorship. We need to get in touch with Pioneer or Serato or Ableton or any of those production companies where we personally use their products and see if they would be into giving us some of their product to give to communities so that it would help them with that. And maybe at the same time get some well-known producers to come up and sit with these kids and show them how they make tracks and collaborate and make tracks together. Because there is nothing more satisfying and self gratifying than that. When A Trak went down [to Australia] and worked with kids with Heaps Decent, those kids had nothing and now they have 10,000 people who have downloaded their song. I just can’t wait for that to happen to the aboriginal youth here.

Erin: It’s really about empowerment through the arts.

Ian: Empowerment through music is a way to express yourself and a way for other people to accept you.

Bear: I had a really hard time in school. I was one of those kids that was put in the learning disabled and the gifted class at the same time. They never knew what to do with me. It was through my experience outside of school with the arts and through being able to bring that into school that I was really able to do anything positive within my educational experience. I started doing video when I was in highschool and that switched it for me. I started doing video essays and things. It changed the way that I felt – from feeling really stupid most of the time to someone who had found his way to express his ideas through art. That really changed the way I felt about myself. This is something I have always remembered and carried with me. And as an individual artist I have done workshop work with aboriginal youth and in remote communities and it is something that is really important for me and really important to all of us in A Tribe Called Red. Something that we have talked about quite a bit is doing that – giving back into that idea that we can show people a lot about themselves, about their self worth, about what they can do with a lap top. We are fortunately going to get our first chance as a group to do a workshop not specifically directed towards youth in Peterborough this coming fall with Spiderwoman Theatre . . . The original idea was for us to get a bus and tour around Canada. Find funding and time. But it is definitely in the top of what were thinking of

Erin: Tell me about “Woodcarver”—the song and video piece about the shooting of John T. Williams.

Ian: I first heard about the shooting. The dashcam shooting video went viral and I got sick to my stomach as soon as I saw it. I thought to myself, at least it’s caught on camera and this cop is going to get the book thrown at him. And it is so sad that this poor guy had to die. And then six months later, the verdict comes back and he is set free and I was just completely flabbergasted and hurt and mad all at the same time. We had a meeting and I said we had to do something. We already had tracks made and I thought we could call a song “John T. Williams – look it up” or do something like that. We had a platform that people were going to listen to what we were going to say and we should probably use that properly right now and just bring some sort of awareness, because we can’t necessarily change what the judge said, but we can definitely make more people aware of the situation. Dan sprinkled a little Shub dust on a track and Bear made a movie to that and the rest is history, it took off from there.

Bear: One of my favourite things about “Woodcarver” is that Ian said, ok, I have this idea, I want to do something about this, and Dan went back to Fort Erie and again, the next morning sent us this track that he had kicked out and it was amazing and was exactly what all of us were thinking of. And then I was able to run with that idea and make the video. It was a really smooth collaboration from the inception of the idea to everyone working to put it together. In that way it is one of the pieces that I am most proud of. Also, as Ian was saying, we get more than a thousand hits a week on our Soundcloud, so it was a chance to use all those hits that we were getting to raise some awareness.

As far as the video itself, watching the dashcam video was so difficult and such a haunting piece, and when I first got it I watched it a bunch of times over, just the straight footage and what really struck me about it was, here’s this incident that is so heavy, and so telling about where things still are to this day in North America for aboriginal people. Here’s a man who was walking down the street with a legal sized blade who was shot four times in the back.

Ian: After ten seconds warning.

Bear: It’s such a heavy, loaded thing, but that day was just a day. And the dashcam footage starts with him driving his route. And after he walks out of camera and you hear the shots for that first five minutes before all the emergency crews arrive, it’s still just a day. There was something about that that really stuck with me. So that’s why there is the repetition of that whole first part in the video, where it’s like, what happened before? He’s just driving. And John T. Williams was just walking. The image of the man running in the video was just my way to say, run man, get the fuck out of there!!!

Erin: You do have a platform, a sense of responsibility and ability to comment. Is there anything you wish people thought about?

Bear: Wearing headdresses isn’t cool.

Shub: Stop wearing headdresses and whooping at our shows. Don’t do that anymore.

Erin: Really? That has happened?

Ian: Yes. I just got on the mike and said “That’s Racist. Stop!!”

Shub: This last party we had, we dropped this song that is a remix of the Atlanta Braves track, the “Tomahawk Chop”, so I figured, when we drop this, people are either going to start doing the Tomahawk Chop or something like the whooping. We kind of expected it and, sure enough, there were people in the crowd doing the “Indian calls”. We got on the microphone right away and said, that’s not cool. They seem to listen to us.

Erin: There have been a number of discussions over appropriation on the internet, but it still seems to happen.

Ian: I am more than willing to sit and talk to anyone and with a cool head explain to them exactly why it’s not cool. I started a couple of campaigns where we went against certain aspects that I personally felt, that I was being made fun of. One of them ended nicely it was about an Esko Water ad, and they took it down. All it takes is a simple conversation and nobody swearing at each other where I can explain. People typically get it. I would say 99% percent of people do.

Erin: Where do you get your clothes – like the t-shirts that say “Caucasians” instead of “Indians”?

Ian: On the internet. There’s also a guy that does Falldown gear. He’s doing the same thing we’re doing but on a fashion tip. Cool, hip, clothes with aboriginal designs on them, so we’ve been wearing a lot of that stuff too.

Bear: It blows my mind that it’s suddenly become ok again in the 2000s to wear red face. This whole Pocohontas and Brave dressing up thing and headdresses and war paint and all of this stuff is kind of like, what happened to the last thirty years of work that’s been put into working against that kind of imagery. Avatar—which was so disturbing because it was this mish mash of bits and pieces from every aboriginal culture around the world. What is interesting with what we’re doing right now and people like Robbie and other artists is that right now Indian is cool. Right now is that wearing headdresses is cool – but what’s cool is really fake, one dimensional, Hollywood image. Partially, due to that coolness, we’ve gained some popularity. In this insidious way we are starting to affect these people. The door is cracked open. And we’re going to stick our foot in it and say, ok, you want to wear a fake headdress? This is what the real deal is. This is what real pow wow music is. That’s an amazing opportunity we have right now.

Erin: And your music speaks quite loudly – literally. It’s big music.

Bear: We’re big guys. [laughing]

Erin: Any collaborations happening soon?

Shub: We are going to get the chance to work with a drum group from Montana called Midnite Express. This is going to be the first time we are going to collaborate with a drum group instead of us taking the music they have already recorded and remixing it. We are going to actually start something from scratch and work collaboratively as a presentation for Aboriginal Music Week in November, so that is something that we are really looking forward to and something that we really wanted to do from the beginning but we didn’t have the chance to. This is just one step closer to something that we want to do on a whole. We want to collaborate with more singers this way as opposed to doing it by remixing.

At the Gathering of Nations in Alberquerque there are competitions. Whoever wins there is the world’s best. We’ll call it like the DMC of pow wow. [laughter] It came down to Northern Cree and Midnite Express this year. They tied. They had one more song. Northern Cree edged it. But it was a great competition. And we get to work with them. These guys and Northern Cree are the best of the best. They are the two giant names in pow wow right now.